Rarely does a losing team believe the scoreline did it justice, but after the U.S. fell to Brazil, 4-2, at Soldier Field in Chicago, a case could be made that the Americans deserved better.
Brazil scored one goal off the chest of a U.S. defender after a fine save by keeper Tim Howard, and notched the winner on a free kick whistled for a very questionable foul. Yet the former came after a breathtaking attack that swept upfield like a wind-driven brush fire, and the latter yielded a wickedly bent ball by the master, Ronaldinho.
Both teams had strident appeals for a penalty kick denied, though the case for Josh Wolff being crunched going for a rebound carried more weight than a Robinho tumble over Oguchi Onyewu that drew the Brazilian a caution for diving.
Over the 90 minutes, despite a superb goal set up by Steve Cherundolo and finished by Clint Dempsey to tie the game briefly at 2-2, the Brazilians controlled more of the play, and ultimately, garnered more of the luck as well.
Afonso rolled a shot off the base of the post during an early Brazilian onslaught but the Americans reversed the momentum to take the lead, and also erased a 2-1 deficit on Dempsey's goal.
"We didn't play bad," said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who glanced home a Landon Donovan corner kick - somewhat luckily -- with his ribcage to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute. "We made a few little mistakes and they punished us."
Great teams like Brazil, of course, turn little mistakes into big plays.
Mistake No. 1 came in the 33rd minute and the U.S. leading, 1-0. Seemingly pinned not far from its own corner flag, Brazil not only escaped, it raced upfield, zipping together a dizzying series of passes for Ronaldinho to feed Kaka for a hard shot that Tim Howard parried right into the massive frame of Onyewu and off him the ball caromed straight into the net.
It happened just that fast.
"On the one that bounced off him on Tim's save, we're running back trying to get a rebound and it just happens to hit him and he can't do much about that," said Bocanegra. "It happens."
Of course, the own goal resulted from much of the American team being sliced apart in a matter of seconds.
Mistake No. 2 occurred eight minutes into the second half. Ronaldinho swerved a corner so deep to the far post it seemed certain to clear everyone's head, but Lucio veered away from Onyewu to a power a header just under the crossbar.
Howard dislocated a ring finger trying to stop it and needed several minutes to pop the finger, painfully, back into place.
Overmatched in talent, the Americans refused to be overrun. They pressed and pinched in midfield, got numbers back to clog up the zone outside their penalty area, and limited Brazil to just a few clear chances.
They conjured up a few Brazil-ish moments, in addition to Dempsey's strike. Late in the first half, Beasley switched play with a ball hit nearly the width of the field, and Donovan crossed it back to the far post for Dempsey to loop a header over the bar.
Brazil started out with Afonso as a lone striker, and three attackers - Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Robinho - circulating and interchanging behind and around him. Miniero and Gilberto Silva served as dual links between attack and defense and threaded balls into channels for the attacking quartet.
Dempsey started up top with Josh Wolff, who made his first appearance since the 2006 World Cup, with DaMarcus Beasley at left mid and Landon Donovan on the right.
Well-laden with pace, the U.S. attack sometimes sputtered because of Beasley pressed so far back to shield left back Heath Pearce.
Occasionally the U.S. cut through Brazil to reach the final third but seldom could it find someone to hold the ball long enough for central midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley to join the attack. Bradley did charge down a clearance late in the match to shoot just wide.
Midway through the second half, Pearce came far enough upfield to lash a shot that keeper Dino could only bat down in the direction of Wolff, but as he arrowed for the ball a pair of opponents sent him crashing to the ground.
"I get inside the guy and for me it's pretty clear, I get pulled down from behind and like we said afterwards, if you look at that situation, you've got the give us a penalty and him a red card, or give me a yellow for diving," said Wolff. "The ref makes the decision and you live with it. It would have made it 2-2 at that point and you never know from there. It happens."
Still the Americans kept pressing and five minutes later, 2-2 it was.
Dempsey's goal resulted from a quick attack up the right when Cherundolo released early and ran onto a Donovan chip, took the ball all the way to the end line, and cut it back diagonally for Dempsey to nail first time a foot inside the base of the far post.
"Landon played a good ball up top to Stevie with a good overlapping run," said Dempsey, whose swaggering play didn't carve out too many opportunities yet teased and pulled the Brazilian back four. "I felt like the only way I could get the ball was if I sat back a little bit and wait for him to cut it to me. I think at the same time I did that he was thinking the same thing. It was a good ball in, and all you could do is go far post. I did that and fortunately it went in."
Bradley won many tackles and, unlike in several previous games, seldom gave the ball away in dangerous spots, so the U.S. shut off much of the service intended for the Brazilian front four.
The substitution of Bobby Convey for Feilhaber in the 70th minute moved Beasley into the middle and helped freshen and sharpen the midfield. So frustrated was Robinho at the tenacious marking of Beasley he jawed with the American and the referee on several occasions as the U.S. stubbornly resisted Brazil's thrusts.
Had the Americans rode out the period following Dempsey's equalizer, perhaps it could have come away with a result. Yet two minutes after tying it up, they fell behind.
Bocanegra tackled Daniel Alves a few yards outside the box and argued with such outrage at referee Armando Archundia's call the official cautioned him.
"I thought Danny Alves just fell down," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. Bocanegra said he believed Archundia tacked on punishment for his protesting of the no-call on Wolff.
Ronaldinho measured the angle and distance in his menacing manner as Brazilians joined the wall and jostled for position; rather than going for a top corner, Ronaldinho aimed for a spot near the edge of the wall, and his shot buzzed right by Convey's ear before nestling just inside the bottom corner.
"We work to try to know how to set up walls a little bit different against a player like Ronaldinho, and everything else, and yet it's not just his ability to strike a ball," said Bradley. "It's his cleverness as to how he disguises it, where it's going, how they put some players on the end of the wall. It makes it very difficult for Timmy to see the ball. But that's a killer goal.
"In terms of just specific calls today," said Bradley of Archundia's decisions, "I thought the likelihood that the play with Josh Wolff was a penalty, and I didn't think there was a foul on Daniel Alves. And I thought the one with Michael Bradley was a penalty."
In stoppage time, Bradley grabbed Julio Baptista as he knifed into the penalty area, and Elano sent Howard the wrong way for Brazil's fourth goal.
On other days, perhaps, the Americans would take willingly a 4-2 loss to a top-flight Brazil. Not on this day, not for all the tough tackles they won, the spirit and commitment and flair with which they played, and the one or two twists of luck they didn't get.
"I'm not one that spends time judging scorelines," said Bradley, "but I understand that, and I think the players feel the same way."
Sept. 9 in Chicago
USA 2 Brazil 4.
Goals: Bocanegra (Donovan) 21, Dempsey (Cherundolo) 73; Onyewu (own goal) 33, Lucio (Ronaldinho) 53, Ronaldinho 75, Elano (pen.) 92+.
USA -Howard, Cherundolo, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Pearce (Arnaud, 86), Bradley, Feilhaber (Convey, 70), Donovan, Beasley, Wolff (Johnson, 70), Dempsey.
Brazil - Doni, Maicon (Daniel Alves, 64), Lucio, Juan (Edu Dracena, 46), Gilberto, Mineiro, Gilberto Silva, Kaka (Baptista, 70), Robinho (Elano, 78), Ronaldinho (Diego, 85), Afonso (Vagner Love, 64).
Corner Kicks: 5-3
Yellow cards:USA -Bocanegra 75; Brazil -- Robinho 45, Gilberto 85.
Referee: Armando Archundia (MEX)